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Could Geoffrey the giraffe be back in business? For decades, a visit to Toys R Us was an indispensable part of holiday shopping for kids. That is, until last year, when the company announced it would be closing its doors for good.
NPR's Darius Rafieyan paid a visit to its new flagship store.
DARIUS RAFIEYAN, BYLINE: Like many people, Jennifer Bain has fond memories of running around a Toys R Us store.
JENNIFER BAIN: I was a Toys R Us kid when I was younger. I definitely wanted to make sure that that was part of my daughter's life, and I was really sad to see it go.
RAFIEYAN: I met Bain here at the new Toys R Us flagship store in Paramus, N.J. It's part of a plan to open 10 new stores over the next year.
(SOUNDBITE OF NERF GUN FIRING, LAUGHTER)
RAFIEYAN: Her 5-year-old daughter Charlotte is standing inside a plexiglass enclosure trying out the latest Nerf blaster.
How do you like it?
CHARLOTTE: I loved it. Can I do it again, mommy?
RAFIEYAN: This Nerf target range is part of what Toys R Us is calling experience-driven retail. The idea is to encourage kids to actually pick up the toys and play with them. The company doesn't have hundreds of stores like Walmart or same-day delivery like Amazon, so it's trying to compete on fun. That strategy is the brainchild of Richard Barry, a former Toys R Us executive and the current CEO of Tru Kids Brands, which now owns the Toys R Us name.
RICHARD BARRY: I'm a 34-year Toys R Us employee, so hearing that the company was going through the troubles was extremely distressing.
RAFIEYAN: The original Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy back in 2017 and was ultimately forced to close all of its stores, some 700 of them. That company had been slow to adapt to online shopping, and it struggled to manage a sprawling real estate portfolio of hundreds of underperforming stores. And all of that was made worse by a disastrous private equity buyout that left the company billions of dollars in debt.
Barry is hoping that this smaller, more immersive retail concept will help the new company avoid some of those pitfalls.
BARRY: This is a very different store from those of the past. It's extremely experiential. We've got a treehouse. We have a theater in the store. Every different spot in the store has a place where you can engage with toys and products.
RAFIEYAN: But Liz Dunn, a retail analyst at Pro4ma, is skeptical. She says many brick-and-mortar retailers are trying to reinvent the shopping experience. Delivering something that actually gets people to put down their phones and come into a store can be easier said than done.
LIZ DUNN: Just calling it experiential is not enough. You have to really, really wow consumers.
RAFIEYAN: The new store has its fans, though. For Stacey Wilkins, who spoke to me as her 7-year-old ran around the treehouse, this new Toys R Us is a godsend.
STACEY WILKINS: We needed a toy store like this, especially - my son is autistic. So being able to play and build and make things and let them be able to use their creativity is a wonderful thing.
RAFIEYAN: But if the company wants to avoid the fate of its predecessor, it still needs to show it can turn all that fun into actual sales.
Darius Rafieyan, NPR News, Paramus.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "DEFINITIVE BREAKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.